I don’t like to play favourites, but hands down, the most dramatic light for me (and the light I love best to get creative with) is backlight. Over the last five years, my preference in light has gone from soft, diffused, and easy to work with, to the somewhat high-maintenance but oh-so-sexy drama of backlight. Here’s what I love about backlight and how I use it.
Backlight creates shadows. Shadows create strong graphic compositional elements, like lines that lead the eye into or around the frame. Shadow, on a smaller scale, creates texture. Shadows hide, only partially revealing elements in a frame, creating mystery. Shadows, when they form silhouettes, can also abstract. When front-lit, a person in the frame is identifiable as a particular person. But when backlit, they become a shape. They could be anyone; the gesture or body language becomes more important than their exact identity.
Pay attention to the lines and shapes formed by shadows. Move around and watch the direction of the shadow in your frame change with perspective, allowing you to play a strong role in the composition of your image. The image above isn't traditionally backlit, but the background is lit and the people are not, effectively creating a backlit situation where I can expose for the bright background and allow the shadows to go dark.
Backlight gives us the possibility of shooting directly into the source of the light itself. Often that means part of the image is dramatically overexposed, like the sky. But underexpose that image several stops and colours become more intense, highlights become the thing you protect, and the shadows become even deeper. When shining through elements in the frame, backlight can also intensify colours much more dramatically than if the subject were lit from the front. Imagine a red maple leaf. Lit from behind, it transmits the light, red and intense. Lit from the front, the colour is less bright, and there may be reflections that dull those colours even more. And if you pull back and look at the whole backlit tree, it seems to glow from within.
Don’t be afraid to underexpose your images relative to what the camera wants. Remember, the camera wants your scene to look average. Average is boring. I shoot on manual mode with my Fuji mirrorless cameras so I have a live histogram in my viewfinder. I just keep underexposing until the brightest highlights are well in range, then I further darken the scene if needed in Lightroom. Using a film camera or DSLR? As a starting point, try spot metering from the brightest points in your scene and then add a stop or two, allowing the rest to go quite dark while keeping the whites bright (if you don’t add 1-2 stops, your meter will try to make those bright areas middle grey and you probably don’t want them that dark).
Some articles on backlight suggest lens flare is a hazard, yet it’s one of the reasons I use backlight; I adore flares and starbursts. For me, they bring an experiential feeling of being in the scene. The same is true of backlight hitting dust or airborne particles, even rain. My question is usually not, "Do I want lens flare?" More often the question is, "Is that lens flare in the right place? Is it contributing to the feel of the image or is it hiding some important detail or pulling my eye?" Everything in the frame should be considered a compositional element, including lens flares, so move around, or tilt your lens a little up/down or left/right and watch where that flare goes. Doing this will allow you to increase or decrease it and move it around in the frame. Be intentional about it, and while you’re learning, try it all.
Not getting enough lens flare? Pull the lens hood off, go wider, or point the front of the lens more directly toward the sun. Too much? Put the hood back on, try a longer lens, or direct the lens slightly away from the sun in any direction and see what works best.
Backlight is not magic and it’s not a make-it-better filter. Sometimes it’s appropriate, sometimes it’s not. But experiment with it, learn to finesse it, and treat it like any of the tools in your visual toolbox and you’ll be comfortable with it when it’s the right tool for the job.
A quick tip on shooting into the sun. If you want the sun to be a tight golden ball, crank that aperture tight (f/16- f/22) so the ball of the sun will become a hard circle. Open your aperture if you want it less refined. Keep underexposing that sky so it goes red. Don’t sweat the details; you don’t need them. It’s not that kind of image.
David duChemin is the founder and Chief Executive Nomad of Craft & Vision. A world and humanitarian photographer, best-selling author, speaker, and adventurer, David can be found at DavidduChemin.com.